Salvador Macip: "Facemasks indoors should stay, also in classrooms"

4 min
Researcher Salvador Macip in the laboratory, in an archive image.

BarcelonaResearcher at University of Leicester and member of the scientific committee that advises the Catalan Government on covid Salvador Macip talks to ARA by phone from the UK. Although the epidemiological situation has improved in Catalonia and Europe and it is expected that in the coming months the prevalence of covid will decrease, the scientist warns that there are too many infections to stop monitoring the virus altogether. Therefore, he defends minimally invasive measures, such as the use of masks indoors, should continue. This includes classrooms, where health authorities want to lift the mandate within ten days.

We are leaving behind the sixth wave and restrictions, but we have 40,000 cases per week. What can we expect in the coming weeks?

— The pandemic never ceases to surprise us and, although we are a thousand times better off, we must avoid triumphalism and remember that we have had such high case numbers, peaking at thousands of infections, that an improvement is easy. If we look at the evolution in other countries that are somewhat more advanced, we see that the decrease in infections has slowed down and we may also see this here, now that we have practically eliminated all measures. We are at a very different stage because a lot of people have received the third dose and in recent months there has been an outbreak of infections that has boosted natural immunity. All this makes us think that until the summer we will have a lower circulation of the virus.

There is enough consensus among experts that we will have a quiet spring, but there are still not many forecasts for the summer.

— It is difficult to anticipate because we do not know what the scenario will be. For example, whether Omicron will continue to be the predominant variant. The theory tells us that good weather favours the reduction of infections, but we could also expect that immunity will decrease and there will be reinfections of people who are now protected. It is known that the vaccine does not prevent us from becoming infected and it seems that the antibodies of those who have now passed the virus or have been vaccinated could be quite low in four or five months's time. If this happens, in summer we will see some small waves. That is unless a new destabilising variant appears.

For the time being, then, can we say that the data supports us in leading a completely normal life?

— They allow us to do things that we could not do before. This should be celebrated, but we cannot disconnect from the pandemic. If we can live without restrictions, fantastic, but this does not mean that we should not control infections and, if necessary, punt in place containment action. We will need a few months to know whether we are going to put an end to the virus. The timing is complicated: we must not overdo it, but we must not lose caution either.

But the health authorities, both in Catalonia and Spain, advocate precisely to stop controlling covid and act as against the flu, for example, by doing fewer tests.

— This is the trend in Europe, because covid control cannot go on forever. But in order to coexist, decisions have to be made based on real data, and if we look at the current figures, this would not be a good strategy. Politically, there are other priorities and, more than ever, epidemiological reality clashes with social reality. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that we are living a "cease-fire", but still does not recommend dealing with covid as a flu. This year it does not seem feasible to stop testing.

If we talk about changes, the Government wants to end the quarantine of students next week and start the month of March without masks in classrooms.

— It is taking into account the mental health and welfare of children and we all know that removing masks in class will be a great benefit for them. Now, on the other hand, there is the epidemiological impact it may have. That is, whether or not it will have an effect on transmission, knowing that we have not yet reached minimum contagion figures. The Government has decided not to consult the advisory committee and will go ahead with the opinions of a group of experts who from the beginning have wanted to minimise restrictions in schools as much as possible. And I think that a broader debate would be needed, which is why the committee exists.

So, the problem is not so much whether masks should be removed, but when?

— This is the problem: we are in a hurry. We have to move towards removal, but when transmission levels are lower. The highest risk is borne by the unvaccinated or those who have not yet completed vaccination, but there are also vaccinees who do not respond as we would expect.

And how do you protect them?

— By controlling the circulation of the virus. That's why indoor masks should stay: they prevent severe cases in vulnerable people and, compared to the restrictions we have had, they are not very invasive. It is not yet time to let covid circulate freely and not put any surveillance in place. We would have to do everything we can to prevent deaths of the old and sick. Now it is being said that efforts have to be focused on the vulnerable population, and that is true, but it is difficult to predict who will have a rough time and who won't. We assume, because the pandemic has shown us so far, that young people will have it easier, but one thing is how we look at it from an individual perspective – for example, someone who is vaccinated and has no previous pathologies, who feels they have a very low risk of getting sick – and another is how we approach it from a public health perspective